NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore is embarking on an inquiry into natural materials, exploring the knowledge they embody as biological forms as well as within social, geopolitical, and historical contexts. Trees of Life – Knowledge in Material is part of the Centre’s long-term research cluster CLIMATES. HABITATS. ENVIRONMENTS.
This exhibition focuses on materials from four plants deeply rooted in Asia: indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), lacquer (Rhus succedanea and Melanorrhoea usitata), rattan (Calamoideae), and mulberry (Morus). The works trace the ongoing involvement with these plants in the artistic practices of Manish Nai (India) with indigo, Phi Phi Oanh (United States/Vietnam) with lacquer, Sopheap Pich (Cambodia) with rattan, and Liang Shaoji (China) and Vivian Xu (China) with mulberry silk. While the featured installations serve as a starting point to uncover the materiality of the chosen plants, the study of their natural and cultural DNA allows further exploration into their biological processes and diverse usages at their locale.
The artworks intertwine with selected research documents that address the complex histories and circulation, as well as the effects of human intervention on these natural resources. Starting from the properties and characteristics of the materials themselves, the project expands into their cultural representation and significance for communities and their crafts.
The longstanding social and cultural practices associated with indigo, lacquer, rattan, and mulberry silk have accumulated a vast repository of knowledge, whether formal or tacit. Beyond the format of the exhibition, topical days with talks and seminars will be dedicated to each of the four materials, further investigating their social applications over centuries in terms of their materiality, cultural references, or expanded ecology, and as arising from technological advancements. The lectures, panels, talks, and workshops will feature the participating artists, as well as craftsmen, scientists, ethnobotanists, anthropologists, scholars, non-governmental organisations, and designers who are working with these materials and researching innovative applications. From the diverse perspectives offered by the contributors, the public programme excavates layers of meanings and reiterates the deeper role art and craft traditions have in supporting local communities, their ecosystems, and in affecting the larger geopolitical order.
The project Trees of Life – Knowledge in Material is led by Ute Meta Bauer, Founding Director, NTU CCA Singapore and Professor, NTU School of Art, Design and Media (ADM); Laura Miotto, Associate Professor and Co-director, MA Museum Studies and Curatorial Practices, NTU ADM; and Khim Ong, Deputy Director, Curatorial Programmes, NTU CCA Singapore.
Manish Nai (b. 1980, India) concentrates on the material qualities of the various substances he utilises in his work. Using the colour indigo (indigo dye), itself loaded with a multitude of representations and associations, this opens up the visual form to subjectivities in the interpretation of the medium throughout time.
Phi Phi Oanh’s (b. 1979, United States/Vietnam) work is informed by her inquiry into lacquer as a material combined with her studies of the Vietnamese lacquer painting (sơn mài) tradition. Drawing from the hybrid nature of her personal history, Oanh constructs pictorial and evocative installations.
Trained in painting, Sopheap Pich’s (b. 1971, Cambodia) foray into the sculptural is driven by a desire to work with natural materials indigenous to his home country. Rattan’s strength, durability, lightness, and incredible malleability allow him to create organic, abstract forms that have become a signature of his practice.
For almost three decades, Liang Shaoji (b. 1945, China) has been working with unusual collaborators—silkworms—using the life process of these insects as a medium. His work embodies the broader ecology of the particular mulberry species that extend their manifestation from botanic origin to the organic life the trees sustain (silkworms), as well as the material culture it, in turn, produces (silk).
Vivian Xu’s (b. 1985, China) practice focuses on the exploration and intersection of electronic and bio media. While creating new forms of machine logic, life, and sensory systems, Xu explores the possibilities of designing a series of hybrid bio-machines that are capable of generating self-organised silk structures that combine the silkworms’ natural production process with automated computational systems of production.